Live

Watch CBSN Live

Calif. Residents Tour Wildfire Devastation

More residents were to return to their homes Tuesday to survey the damage after wildfires tore through Southern California neighborhoods, destroying hundreds of houses.

More than 500 people made the trip on Monday to Oakridge Mobile Home Park, a tight-knit community of manufactured homes that became a flattened field of blackened trees and twisted metal. But they were not allowed to sift through the ruins as cadaver-sniffing dogs scoured the area to make sure no one had died in the blaze. After an exhaustive search, no bodies were found.

Residents whose homes were intact were allowed to quickly pick up clothes, toiletries, and other belongings under police escort. The scale of destruction was hard for residents to accept, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

"It looks like a battlefield," says Rick Asavis. "Just like a bomb went off here."

Hundreds of other residents were expected to line up Tuesday to get a chance to walk through the Sylmar park and see the devastation for themselves.

The fire at the park was one of three in Southern California that have destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and apartments and burned 42,000 acres, or 65 square miles, forcing thousands to flee.

Michael Hernandez pulled a charred photo album from the wreckage of his home, the plastic pages melted and flaking after a wildfire tore through the mobile home park where he lived with his grandparents and 7-year-old daughter. It was one of a handful of keepsakes Hernandez was able to rescue Monday during a police-escorted tour.

"We came here with a little hope and we walked around and pretty much everything's ruined," said Hernandez, a 32-year-old artist who splits his time between the park and his studio in downtown Los Angeles. "I don't recognize my room."

Most evacuation orders were lifted in Southern California by Monday, when clear, warm skies and calm winds helped firefighters make some gains.

Warm weather was forecast to remain Tuesday with temperatures reaching the 80s in much of the region, but winds weren't expected to blow much harder than about 5 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

In Sylmar, the inferno destroyed 484 homes in the mobile home park Saturday when winds with hurricane intensity blew a wall of fire through the complex and set them ablaze so quickly that even firefighters had to drop their hoses and run.

Firefighters were able to save about 120 homes, but many were badly damaged in the park that residents described as idyllic for its mountain scenery, swimming pool and tennis courts and community spirit.

Elsewhere, the largest of the fires has burned nearly 29,000 acres in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties and has destroyed more than 250 homes and apartment units. Firefighters had it 60 percent surrounded. San Bernardino became the fourth county to have a state of emergency declared.

In Yorba Linda in Orange County, where more than 150 homes were lost, residents also returned to survey the devastation.

The first of the wildfires broke out in the Montecito area of Santa Barbara County, about 90 miles northwest of Sylmar. It destroyed 210 homes, many of them mansions that once had sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. It was fully contained Monday night.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said President-elect Barack Obama contacted him Sunday night to offer what help he could. Obama has turned his campaign Web site home page into a plea to help fire victims that includes a link to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's site, where people can sign up to volunteer or donate to the Red Cross or Salvation Army.

Schwarzenegger on Monday asked the Bush administration to declare Southern California a federal disaster site. The governor also requested disaster loans for the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Santa Barbara and San Bernardino. He said many of the residents affected by the fires - particularly mobile home owners - lacked insurance or are seriously underinsured.

The causes of all three fires were under investigation, although officials labeled the Santa Barbara-area fire "human-caused."